Spectres of the Real Paul and the Prospect of Pauline Scholarship – By T.J. Lang

T.J. Lang on Benjamin L. White’s Remembering Paul

Benjamin L. White, Remembering Paul: Ancient and Modern Contests over the Image of the Apostle, Oxford University Press, 2014, 376pp., $74
Benjamin L. White, Remembering Paul: Ancient and Modern Contests over the Image of the Apostle, Oxford University Press, 2014, 376pp., $74

The fashionable dictum among historians today is that biographies do not repristinate their subjects “as they really were,” in the quaint Rankean sense. Biography is instead a construction of the historian’s imagination with all the limitations and ideological bias that entails. But the fiction of the impartial historian does not mean historical work is synonymous with fantasy. An enquiry into the life of Marie Antoinette is not equivalent to a study of Cinderella. Imagination is required of historical scholarship for the simple reason that the writing of history occurs as the past commingles with the perspectives and prejudices of the present. Since history is written in the present, the present can never be disentangled from it, which is not a condition to bemoan but a reality requiring constant scrutiny.

Historical work on the apostle Paul is no exception. The Paul we reimagine emerges ever anew from the decisions we make — and inherit, and unconsciously reproduce — about what data shape our thinking, how they shape it, and why such data matter to begin with. Although our mental conjuring is controlled by the information on Paul available to us, it is still subject to our selection and weighing of it. It is also freighted with our own interests, our own controlling images and ideologies, as well as the processes of remembering, forgetting, and prioritizing the traditions we receive. There simply is no unmediated or ideologically innocent retrieval of the historical Paul. The traditions that deliver to us his memory require scrutiny. What such scrutiny inevitably unveils is the fragility of our work. The Paul of our history can be nothing other than a Paul of human memory, and we all know the whims and potencies of human memory: anything remembered is always more and less than what has been witnessed.

Jacques Le Goff, the eminent Medievalist and early pioneer in the now burgeoning field of social (or collective) memory research, prophesied as follows in the 1992 preface to the English translation of his widely influential work, History and Memory: “A twenty-first century historiography remains to be developed. I believe the relations between history as it occurs, history as historians write it, and the memory of men, women, peoples, and nations, will play a major role in the birth of this new historiography.” Le Goff’s prediction about the role of memory in a twenty-first century historiography has proven true, as studies on memory and cognitive psychology now pervade the humanities.

Take the recent developments in historical Jesus research. Retracting decades of searching for allegedly authentic material via the dissection of Gospel traditions with the often capricious scalpel of “criteria,” many scholars are now finding in memory theory a way of approaching the historical Jesus that appreciates the overall impressions created by Gospel texts as literary wholes — thus redirecting attention away from extracted units of text and toward larger literary patterns, themes, and recurrent emphases (see especially Dale Allison’s Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination and History). This is not some Pollyanna-like overlooking of the fallibility of memory but rather an embrace of it — and embrace of the possibility that the gist of who someone is can be expressed even in factual error or invention. To amend a famous statement from Origen: “The biographical truth is often preserved, as some would say, in the material falsehood” (Commentary on John 10.5.20).

Despite the turn to memory and cognitive psychology in the humanities, including scholarship on early Christianity (see the work of Markus Bockmuehl and Elizabeth Castelli), the field of Pauline studies has remained surprisingly unaffected. The “New Perspective on Paul” — and efforts to move beyond it — still dominates much discussion, while at the same time tribal warfare between the apocalyptic and salvation-historical readers of Paul rages apace.

Benjamin L. White’s Remembering Paul: Ancient and Modern Contests over the Image of the Apostle delivers a new and potent injection into these old debates. This work also represents the fulfilment in Pauline studies of Le Goff’s original prophecy and, in the spirit of Le Goff, it points the way to a new historiographical orientation. The implications of this brilliant book are massive.

As his subtitle suggests, White is principally interested in disputes over the real Paul, that is, the historical man himself who stands in contrast to other conceivable construals: deutero-Paul, canonical Paul, the Paul of legend, the Paul of Acts, the Paul of the heretics, and so on. But, as White so deftly illustrates, it is impossible to unscramble any real Paul from the complex processes of Remembering Paul. This fact has not, however, forestalled questing for that pristine spectre of the real.

Due to the complexity of the extant data, quests for the real Paul require methods or rules for sorting authentic, fabricated, and other second-hand material and then for determining how to assess it. As White explains, such rules have always existed, but they have never been disinterested. Take the rules of modern scholarship, which are well known, widely observed, and depend in large part on the pioneering work of the great Tübingen scholar F.C. Baur (1845). Influenced by Friedrich Schleiermacher, Baur embarked on a project to reconsider the authenticity of the entire Pauline letter collection and sifted the corpus accordingly. In the end, Baur’s science admitted only the chief epistles (the Hauptbriefe) of Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Galatians into the class of authentic letters. These four alone withstood Baur’s inspection because, in his words, “they bear in themselves so incontestably the character of Pauline originality, that it is not possible for critical doubt to be exercised upon them with any show of reason.”

As the purer science of Bruno Bauer (1850-51) would soon prove, it was clearly possible for a scholar to harbor critical doubt about the beloved Hauptbriefe because Bauer determined all the Pauline letters to be forgeries. Usually derided for his extremism, Bauer is perhaps more worthy of compliment for his methodological consistency. His contribution is also important in that it gave form to what several respondents to Schleiermacher’s ground-breaking work had already suspected: the methods of higher criticism, if extended across the Pauline corpus, could be used to cast doubt on any of the letters. As Schleiermacher’s detractors deduced, the calculations of higher-critical scholarship still depend as much on the personality of the critic as on the procedures of the criticism.

The question for F.C. Baur, then, is how in his Wissenschaft he discerned in Romans, Galatians, and the Corinthian letters “so incontestably the character of Pauline originality.” The answer, White reminds us, is that it was because he was a good Protestant — and Hegelian, one should add — properly beholden to the dogma that justification by faith lies at the heart of Pauline thought (Romans and Galatians) and that dialectical conflict furnishes the key to synthesizing Christian history (the Corinthian correspondence). Since Baur levered his scientific reconstruction of the real Paul from the Archimedean point of a Protestant Paul (with a penchant for Hegel), he concluded with an even securer image of one. The façade of historical science simply overlaid the ideological scaffolding of a thoroughly Protestant tradition of remembrance. Far from escaping the shackles of ecclesial memory, therefore, Baur’s Paul concentrates its core elements.

The brunt of White’s argument is worth restating in the plainest of terms: the pride of place given to the Hauptbriefe in modern scholarship, insofar as it is indebted to Baur’s reasoning, is at best a Protestant construct and at worst simply arbitrary. Such reasoning, it should be pointed out, is also nefariously self-reinforcing. Pauline texts that are privileged as real inevitably become, through exposure and entrenchment in memory, more “naturally” and “obviously” Pauline, whereas marginalized texts can only become increasingly “odd” and “un-Pauline.” The ostensibly un-Pauline texts increasingly seem un-Pauline because they cease to be remembered as Pauline. And so the act of marginalization fortifies the initial judgment in a waltz of circular reasoning.

What we observe in Baur’s story is the familiar phenomenon of ideology dressed up as historical science. It is hardly surprising that Baur’s Lutheran leanings slanted his historical-critical calculation. Lutheran leanings were his world. And let us remember, lest we become wise in our own conceits, that we’re all masquerading in the wisdom of our place, mistaking social memories for objective facts. It’s just that the wisest among us are worrying about why and how.

It is also the case that, while Baur was hard at work on Pauline research in the 1830s, he was embroiled in polemical debate with the Catholic scholar Johann Adam Möhler over matters of Catholic-Protestant apologetics. This circumstance surely aggravated his Lutheran inclinations and galvanized his own image of the real Paul as the great theologian of justification by faith. Baur would not be alone in this. Protestant polemics have had an enduring effect on scholars of early Christianity. To observe this, one need only consult Jonathan Z. Smith’s Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity, which trenchantly documents the ways in which anti-Catholic sentiment has sponsored historical-critical approaches to Christian origins, or Dale Martin’s “Paul and the Judaism/Hellenism Dichotomy: Toward a Social History of the Question,” which reminds us that Paul has long been “an expandable signifier” and his opposition to “legalistic” Judaism cheap fuel for Protestant bigotry.

The Protestant propensities in modern Pauline scholarship have also helped reinforce the canon bequeathed to modern criticism by Baur in the Hauptbriefe, which shores up Paul’s Protestant portraiture. The so-called deuteropauline letters such as Ephesians and the Pastoral Epistles are frequently characterized as betraying un-Pauline interests, particularly in matters of ecclesiology. For that reason, they are deemed to lie along the lamentable trajectory of “early Catholicism” in Christian history (so Ernst Käsemann’s classic essay, “Paul and Early Catholicism”). Suspicion of these letters is further highlighted by various cautionary tales, such as oft-told accounts of the conversion to Catholicism of the famed Protestant Neutestamentler Heinrich Schlier, which is said to have been occasioned by his writing a commentary on Ephesians. The moral in such hearsay is unmistakable: stray too far from the real Paul of Romans and you’re liable to swim the Tiber.

St. Paul the Apostle, by El Greco. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
St. Paul the Apostle, by El Greco. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Although the theme of Protestant bias within Pauline scholarship is not a matter of focus in White’s book, it nonetheless presents an intriguing way of viewing his total argument. For after detailing the partialities and methodological assumptions that animate modern scholarship in the first half, in the second half he applies the same critical questioning to ancient contests over the real Paul. If the enduring monument of modern Pauline scholarship is the Protestant Paul of the Hauptbriefe, and so the dogged champion of justification by faith, this particular way of remembering the apostle is nowhere to be found in the second century.

In fact, as White turns to the memory of Paul in various second-century portrayals, what emerges is a Paul primarily remembered in terms of the very letters ousted by so many modern readers. In texts such as Irenaeus’ Against Heresies and the pseudonymously authored 3 Corinthians, it is the Paul of the Pastoral Epistles who becomes the centripetal core of their Pauline memory tradition. The real Paul for these Paulinists (or “reputational entrepreneurs” as White frequently terms them, following the work of Barry Schwartz) is the teacher and defender of catholic Christianity par excellence. This second-century Paul is thus defined first and foremost by the polemical terminology of the Pastorals and so is memorialized as a warrior against heretics (principally Gnostics) and the great architect of true catholic teaching. The reason for this attraction to the heresy-hunting Paul of the Pastorals is uncomplicated. For these second-century authors the horizon of theological dispute with alleged false teaching was the frame in which they appropriated the available Pauline data. Since conflict with the theological other was their Archimedean point, it became the determinative framework within which the Pauline data was shaped. The Paul they were wont to remember was of course a Paul fit for defining true doctrine against those who would disfigure it.

There is nothing necessarily devious in this. It is merely another instance of the interests of the present occasioning a particular recollection of the past. Since heresy was the perceived problem, the Pauline texts most applicable to that problem became the gravitational center of Pauline commemoration. And notice that the absence of any fixation with the doctrine of justification by faith in the second century (and for many ages to follow) is entirely unsurprising. It was simply of no service to the ideological programs of the authors of this age (and the ages to follow), who aimed their invective at very different foes than those who would worry Martin Luther. In other words, justification by faith acquired no emphasis because abuse of indulgences did not exist, nor did the Protestant substructure that would materialize around Luther’s original protest. What did exist were “certain people discarding the Truth and introducing deceitful myths and ‘endless genealogies’ which, as the Apostle says, ‘promote speculations rather than the divine training that is in faith.’” So Irenaeus quotes 1 Timothy 1:4 in the very first words of his preface to Book 1 of Against Heresies.

Where does all this leave us? Are scholars simply staring down the well of Pauline traditions to find their own reflections? Perhaps, but White does not appear particularly disillusioned by this. In the final chapter (“Practicing Paul”) White calls for a paradigm shift in Pauline studies and a return to the prolegomena of the discipline. He offers several methodological considerations toward this end. (There are eight, to be exact, which I combine and summarize in what follows.) It is important to note that with these methodological proposals White is not calling for the cessation of interest in the real Paul, if by that we mean the historical personage. His interest is rather in helping scholars who quest for the real become more self-critical of the agendas and assumptions that fuel their own criticism.

Although modern Pauline scholarship has been invigorated by the sense of liberation from tradition and canon afforded by the Enlightenment, it remains insufficiently critical of the alternative forms of ideology and tradition — and even canon (e.g., the Hauptbriefe) — that still control it. The “structural and institutional biases” given to the Hauptbriefe are, in White’s estimation, a specific matter in need of serious self-criticism; acknowledgement of the historical and theological inertia that undergird these texts is indeed long overdue.

But institutional structures are not all bad; in fact, they can stimulate and focus knowledge every bit as much as they can suppress it. White remains confident that a more methodologically sensitive temperament in Pauline studies will help ensure that competing traditions of scholarship engage in public debate so as to promote intellectual engagement rather than stifle it. An increasingly public and interactive form of scholarship should also entail that those who make claims about the real Paul become more forthcoming and self-reflective about the grounds in which such claims are made and the terms in which they might be falsified or at least validly contested.

Consideration of what counts as falsifiability should also help ensure that certain timeworn habits, like privileging the Hauptbriefe (or the “seven letters” of more recent convention) as the standard for judging authenticity, are subjected to proper critical scrutiny. Finally, White reminds us that whatever one means by the real or historical Paul that entity is certainly more complex than what is possibly recoverable from the few letters deemed to be genuine missives. White therefore urges Pauline scholars to consider memory research as a tool for reorienting future historiography in ways analogous to recent historical Jesus research.

An approach to Paul which is attuned to social memory would attend more seriously to the broad impressions of Paul that are reflected in ancient Pauline traditions — whether authentic or inauthentic, whether by Paul or about Paul — rather than continue to whittle his letters down to the securest but still speculative core. As Marc Bloch once remarked on Aeschylus’s Oresteia, “There is more certainty in the whole than in the parts.” So there may be more certainty in the Paul of early Christian memory than in any hypothetical quartet or septet of his letters.

If there is, as White surmises, more certainty in the whole of early Pauline traditions than in the conjectural subsets of “authentic” letters reduced by practitioners of historical science, the problem he is yet to address is how we actually go about reading the whole of these traditions in the productive way he imagines. If such certainty is there, how exactly is it to be found?

Like White, I have no grand method to propose in answering this question, but I would like to proffer a potential guide. Friedrich Schleiermacher is of course most known by New Testament scholars for his innovative “higher-critical” work and specifically his 1807 essay on 1 Timothy in which he became the first scholar to judge a Pauline letter inauthentic. Thus the floodgates were opened.

Far less known about Schleiermacher among New Testament scholars is that while he was an accomplished theologian and biblical critic he was also a renowned scholar of Plato. His German translations of Plato’s dialogues are in fact still widely read today, over 200 years since their initial publication, and his methodological contributions to Platonic scholarship, developed in most detail in his General Introduction to the dialogues (1804), have also had an enduring legacy, and far beyond the bounds of Germanic scholarship.

What most intrigued Schleiermacher as a reader of Plato was the art required to interpret Plato’s diverse corpus as an interrelated whole — a methodological consideration he unfortunately never extended to Paul. Schleiermacher thus developed a hermeneutical approach that preserved the unity of Platonic thought by ordering the dialogues in terms of a coherent philosophical reading program. Schleiermacher contended that the diversity in Plato’s corpus actually corresponds to Plato’s pedagogical design, a design that leads to a comprehensive philosophical coherence. Like the various parts of a body, the dialogues belong to a living curriculum for Platonic philosophy, and to read the parts of that body rightly requires that they be related at all points to the organic whole. But since the dialogues constitute a philosophical curriculum, it is also imperative that they be read in the right order.

Ordering the dialogues has been a matter of great concern from the very beginning of their reception. (The prevailing ancient sequences were, first, the trilogies of the Alexandrian librarian Aristophanes and then the tetralogies of Thrasyllus of Alexandria, which became standard for millennia.) Schleiermacher developed his own theory about a proper “trilogy of trilogies” with which to order the Platonic curriculum, and subsequent scholars have had widely differing theories as well. But that the dialogues find their ultimate coherence when read as comprising an interrelated philosophical program remains a predominant hermeneutical approach and one that continues to stimulate original research (see Catharine Zuckert’s Plato’s Philosophers: The Coherence of the Dialogues). In some quarters even supposedly spurious dialogues are also still treated with regard to how they contribute to the totality of Plato’s philosophy and, of course, to the Platonism that develops from him. If not a “method,” Pauline scholars impressed by White’s recommendations should at least find in these readers of Plato and the broader Platonic tradition stimulating intellectual resources for imagining new ways of interpreting the Pauline epistolary corpus in relation to the development of early Paulinism.

I suspect White would agree it is unfortunate that Pauline scholarship has mostly followed Schleiermacher’s critical science in sponsoring endless speculation over the authenticity or inauthenticity of Pauline letters and yet has by and large failed to pursue Schleiermacher’s hermeneutical art in cultivating new ways of reading Pauline traditions. If scholars are to pursue this art in approaching Pauline studies from the perspective of social memory as White urges, it seems to me a study of ancient Paulinism akin to the study of ancient Platonism would move in the direction White recommends we travel, and, ironically, with a different version of Schleiermacher as our lead.